Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Politicism and Aestheticism


In histories of German literature, there is an idea one hears quite a bit, which attempts to explain the sudden flourishing of German literature beginning in the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, dating roughly from the publication of the first three books of Klopstock's Messias in 1748 to the revolutions of 1848. According to this theory the writers of the Sturm und Drang and the Romantics, in particular, devoted themselves to literature because they had no other outlet for their energies, as the ascendant German bourgeoisie was still excluded from political life. This theory has at least three important effects. First, it establishes aesthetics and politics as completely inimical to each other, rather than simply in tension with each other. Second, this theory implies that all aesthetics is really just aestheticism and leads to political quietism. Lastly, and most importantly, it precludes the possibility that politics can degenerate into what, for lack of a better term, can be called "politicism," where the daily struggle of party politics becomes the good citizen's only concern.

This interpretation of German literature probably originated with Heinrich Heine, the self-named "last Romantic poet." Heine was certainly not a man without a strong aesthetic sensibility, as any reading of his Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs)will prove. Yet even early in his career Heine began to make controversial political statements, with his opinions leaning toward socialism (he became acquainted with the young Karl Marx in Paris). His radical opinions and his penchant for ridiculing his enemies meant that he had to endure censorship in Germany nearly his entire life. While Heine appears to have already formed his revolutionary political views by the time he left university, part of his disenchantment with the apolitical nature of German literary culture, and above all with Goethe, may stem from his disappointing visit to Goethe. After publishing his first poems as a law student, Heine sent a copy of the book to Goethe, and two years later made something of a pilgrimage through the Harz Mountains to Goethe. In Weimar, though, the great poet gave Heine a cool reception, and Heine, rather uncharacteristically (since he loved to talk about himself), never spoke of the incident again. But among the writers of the Vormärz, Goethe came to be regarded as the epitome of a conservative German aestheticism that refused to sully itself with politics and rejected all reform movements out of hand.

This interpretation of German literature before Heine is certainly not indefensible. The frustration felt by the rising generations at being unable to take on political responsibility comes through in certain authors, such as in Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion. The young, idealistic title character joins in a Greek rebellion against the Turks (a couple decades before Byron). But, more importantly, Hyperion falls in love and explores his emotions in the letters he writes to his German friend Bellarmin. After suffering defeat in battle and the death of his lover, Diotima, Hyperion returns to Greece to live as a hermit contemplating the beauty of nature while nurturing his sorrow over Diotima's untimely death. The conclusion of the novel indeed leaves the impression that Hölderlin saw devotion to the aesthetic as mere consolation for failure in politics and love.

The frustration seething in the writers of the Sturm und Drang took even more dramatic form than the early Romanticism of Hyperion. For instance, in Friedrich Schiller's Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), the protagonist Ferdinand, as the result of a court intrigue, decides to kill himself and his love, Luise. Here, not even aesthetics can save the young idealist and make life tolerable after failure in affairs both public and private. Indeed, even though he later became the symbol of German political passivity, Goethe first came to the public's attention as an enfant terrible, whose Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) ends once again with the protagonist's suicide after he has been thwarted in his ambitions by a court society prejudiced against the middle class, and by an unhappy love affair. This epistolary novel was so shocking to contemporaries in part because it inspired a wave of copy-cat suicides who dressed as Werther before discharging pistols into their (already empty) brains. Werther is perhaps the most famous expression of political frustration that came out of the Sturm und Drang and is still the epitome of Liebestod in German literature before Wagner's operas.

But, the later Schiller and especially the later Goethe show the limits of the idea that German literature before the Vormärz was simply a means for the ascendant bourgeoisie to sublimate its political aspirations into safer activities. While Schiller is sometimes remembered, especially in the English-speaking world, primarily for his "Letter on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind," he also taught history at the University of Jena. He was deeply interested in the political history of the Netherlands whose republicanism he admired, as well as the Thirty Years' War. His most famous plays, such as Wilhelm Tell, Wallenstein, and Maria Stuart, are all classical in aesthetics, but take their inspiration from politics and history.

Goethe's case is more complicated than Schiller's because he took a sharper turn towards aesthetics. Goethe came from a family of lawyers (his maternal grandfather was something like the chief justice of the city of Frankfurt) and even became a lawyer himself, first as an intern at the supreme court of the Holy Roman Empire in Wetzlar, and then as a private attorney in Frankfurt for a couple years before entering the service of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Once in Weimar, he became one of the Duke's chief advisers and filled many administrative posts. However, Goethe was never completely happy as a man of action. In 1786, without asking permission first, he left Weimar and Carlsbad and traveled to Italy, touring most of the peninsula as well as Sicily for a couple years. It was in Italy that he matured as a writer and a man, rejecting the excesses of his Sturm und Drang phase and re-founding his aesthetics on the classicism of his day.

Nevertheless, upon his return to Weimar, while he was relieved of certain administrative duties, the Duke still entrusted him with the direction of the court theater and of the University of Jena. Moreover, in his later classically-inspired works, Goethe does not present complete withdrawal from the world as his ideal. In Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the prototype of the Bildungsroman) the hero rejects the aesthetic life of a wandering actor for a more settled life of responsibility. Even the life of quiet contemplation, which is presented sympathetically in the famous diary of the schöne Seele ("beautiful soul"), is ultimately rejected as an evasion of responsibility. Even in Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), Goethe introduces Eduard as a man who has chosen to retire to his country estate, a decision, however, that would lead to the end of his marriage. Despite his clearly conflicted feelings about the desirability of living in society--Goethe became known for treating strangers (such as Heine) very coldly in an attempt to protect his privacy--as well as his later avoidance of political questions, it can be said that Goethe recognized that it was good to live among others and to assume responsibility in life. As much as he devoted himself to aesthetics, the charge against him that he was uninterested in politics is false.

The Weimarer Klassik of Schiller and Goethe represents not a flight from reality into aestheticism but rather an attempt to unite life, including politics, with aesthetics. Schiller and Goethe advocated a politically involved life, but also insisted on keeping involvement in politics within certain bounds. In the French Revolution and in their own experiences they saw how a certain type of passion for politics and social change could harm the common good and blind the individual soul. Before accusing Schiller and Goethe of aestheticism, then, one must first eschew politicism.
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